Systems, Conflicts, Privilege, and Power
I was gifted the space to write for Connections, and I have chosen to use this space to share aspects of my academic journey, some of my current inner conflicts, and some strategies for moving forward. In doing so, I hope those of you who are similarly conflicted might find some solace in knowing others are also experiencing and thinking through these issues.
A Brief History
Sometimes I feel like a fraud. We all know about imposter syndrome, that feeling that they (whoever they are) are going to figure out I don’t belong here. When I was on the job market, I didn’t think I was scholarly enough to be at a place like the University of Missouri (Mizzou). Researchers whose work I had read in graduate school were or had worked at Mizzou, and I was just a punk rock loving, first-gen, daughter of Brazilian and Portuguese parents who happened to hoodwink everyone into thinking I was a researcher. I did get the job at Mizzou and once I got here, I struggled to find my footing early on. I couldn’t figure out how to manage my time, and it was/is hard to be so far away from family. Over time things did get better. I have worked hard to learn what I didn’t know I needed to learn. I have advocated for myself time and time again. I have drawn on my networks for support and put in a lot of time and tears. I found my footing, and in the summer of 2018 I received word that I had earned tenure and promotion.
Given that I made it through tenure, you might think that imposter syndrome is no more; alas, it is still here. I am working to make sure I get full professor. This would make me part of a very small group; Latinas make up just 3% of full professors in the United States (Nuñez & Murakami-Ramalho, 2012). I understand it is important to reach this milestone as representation does matter. Every one of us who makes it through gains power and privilege to help make the journey easier for those to come, should we choose to use it. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.
However, I, like many others, find it difficult to reconcile parts of my identity and my work. Part of the reason I went into academia was that I thought I could make things better. I do enjoy my work, and I still hope to make things better. I have a lot of privilege in that I get to think about issues I care about and get paid to do so. However, academia is hardly a utopia. In fact, my position within academia has led to a lot of inner turmoil.
Here are some examples of my inner conflicts. I am preparing future teachers, having been alternatively certified myself in a system I acknowledge is problematic. Those teachers will then enter a system in which they are often undervalued and underpaid. In light of the current pandemic, I see universities making troubling decisions that impact the most vulnerable workers as I continue to be rewarded for what I do. I have received funding for my work in competition with others who have far fewer resources than those at my university. Despite the disparities in resources and support, people continue to portray such competitions as a meritocracy. I share all of this because it is often not shared, but such conflict is often felt. Once I started thinking about these issues, it was (and is) hard to reconcile my role in the system. I continue to learn and to try and make things better. Below, I share some of things that have helped me along the way.
What have I Learned?
As this article is aimed at early career folks, here are some lessons that have helped me through the first part of my career and are helping me through my current inner conflicts. One of the most important things I did was to find people who I wanted to be around. Many of us get jobs in places far from friends and family. You have to find your people, and you will know them when you find them. Your people will celebrate your accomplishments with you and commiserate with you when you fail. You will feel better after spending time with these folks and will look forward to seeing them again. They may not be colleagues and in fact, I thought it important to have non-work friends. If you don’t have people close by, you might have to work to keep your distant support networks alive. My friend Amber and I take walks together, even though we are 2 hours away. My journey to this point would have been much harder and more unhappy had I not had a good support network.
I am not my work. My work is important, it is a big part of who I am, but it alone does not define me. If you follow me on Instagram you know that I have a slight obsession with my flower garden. I have a great husband and a healthy social life (when I am not stuck in the house due to a global pandemic). I try to make sure that I don’t define my worth as a person by how many articles I publish, but rather by how content I am with my actions and choices in life. My friend Rachel and I always remind ourselves that if something happened to us, our institutions would just replace us. We say this to remember that we have to make sure we have a life of our own design, not one that is forced upon us by the ever-increasing demands of our institutions.
As I try to ensure my actions and choices are ones I can live with, I think back to Rochelle Gutierrez and the Mirror Test (Gutierrez, 2016) which she described as the process of people “look[ing] to the mirrior and ask[ing] themselves if they are doing what they set out to do…” (p. 53). When I look at myself, I want to make sure my work helps make the mathematical experiences of students better. I feel good about the work I do, even though not all of my work explicitly addresses students who are marginalized. The Mirror Test is a good strategy for me to go beyond a do no harm mentality, and make sure I push myself to do good by way of actions. Having to face myself means that even when I don’t push as far as I should for change, I will at some point acknowledge this and continue to try to do better. As you decide what to say yes or no to, use the Mirror Test to help chart your course.
As you journey through academia, a hard but important lesson to learn is that comparison is the thief of joy (Summerville, 2019). Success in academia seems to be 80% persistence. I have gotten a lot of rejection as have most of my colleagues who are perceived as successful. Some of the papers I am most proud of went through years of revision before getting accepted. We have to remember this when we start to compare ourselves to others. Before getting my current NSF grant, I believe I submitted at least five or six others that were unfunded. I didn’t post each of those decisions, although I certainly did share my success because I was, rightfully, proud of my accomplishment. Part of that pride stemmed from knowing how many times I’d failed along the way. I try to be transparent with graduate students and early career folks about how much rejection I’ve had. I encourage you to try to stop comparing your work to others, you never know what someone else is dealing with or help they got along the way. As long as you have a good support network, a healthy sense of self, and can pass the mirror test you will come out okay, no matter where your journey takes you.
Ideas to Push for Change
As more and more folks who differ from those in charge make it through the gates, I am hopeful things will start to change. Once we make it through, we have to be sure to use our power and privilege to help make the system better moving forward. Here is some advice I have from my own experiences. Keep in mind my path may not be the path for you, so be sure to chart your own course.
Figure out Robert's Rules of Order (Robert et al., 2011). When you are in spaces where decisions are made it seems that folks all seem to know to play by these rules. These rules were completely unknown to me when I started as an assistant professor. You have to know the game, and part of the game is knowing the rules. The better you are at the rules, the more power you have. You can find free guides to them online (e.g., Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, 2020).
Find out which tables matter and how to get the invitation. Recently, I’ve been trying to get more involved with policy within the state. I thought this might be a way to enact change more effectively at scale. I found the right people and reached out to them. Since reaching out, I have now been working on several state initiatives to improve mathematics teaching and learning in Missouri. It is important to understand who and/or where decisions are being made if you want to help make changes. This connects to my final point below.
Talk and listen, like really listen, to people outside of academia. We need folks to write theoretical pieces and communicate research, but we also need folks who communicate with the public. Many doctoral programs teach us to write for academic audiences and ignore other outlets, and this has got to change. The value of colleges of education continues to be questioned. We have to make sure people understand our work and expertise. We have to share what we do in ways that are useful to those we hope to impact. We need to talk and listen to administrators, teachers, and students to understand their issues and practice. We need to communicate with legislatures and community organizations so they recognize and draw upon our expertise. We need to reach folks where they go, free of paywalls. We also need to translate our research and expertise into forms that are taken up more widely. We also need to value this work as a form of scholarship as the next generation of scholars engages in new forms of outreach and dissemination.
Those of you reading this made it through at least parts of the system that we are now helping to lead and perpetuate. I think it’s fair to say that even though the system has worked to varying extents for us, most of us recognize the system is not ideal and we want to improve it. We have some really smart and brave early career folks who have put themselves out there again and again to talk about issues with the system (e.g., Baucom, 2019; Gomez, 2020; Siy, 2018). We have to use our power and privilege for good. Make sure you can pass the Mirror Test (Gutiérrez, 2016) as you navigate these strange times and your inner conflicts. In the words of Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest, “It doesn’t have to be like this” (2016, 3:18).
Thanks to my colleagues, particularly Sam Otten, for nominating me for this award and for putting up with me. I also give my gratitude for Amber Candela and Dan Neiswanger for giving me feedback on a draft of this article.
Baucom, L. (2019). Two paths: Tensions of an emerging scholar. In S. Otten, A. Candela, Z. de Araujo, C. Haines, and C. Munter (Eds.), Proceedings of the 41st annual meeting of the North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (pp. 22-28). St. Louis, MO: University of Missouri.
Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies. (2020). Governing documents. Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies. http://diphi.web.unc.edu/history/governing-documents/
Gomez, C. N. (2020, February). Looking down the AMTE road. Presentation at the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators’ Annual Conference, Phoenix, AZ.
Gutiérrez, R. (2016). Strategies for creative insubordination in mathematics teaching. Teaching for Equity and Excellence in Mathematics, 7(1), 52-60.
Toledo, W. (2016). Drunk drivers/killer whales [Song]. On Teens of denial. Matador.
Nuñez, A., & Murakami-Ramalho, E. (2012). The demographic dividend. AAUP. https://www.aaup.org/article/demographic-dividend#.XsWTnZNKhTZ
Siy, E. (2019). Creating a healthy and rigorous culture of research by revealing our work. In S. Otten, A. Candela, Z. de Araujo, C. Haines, and C. Munter (Eds.), Proceedings of the 41st annual meeting of the North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (pp. 16-21). St. Louis, MO: University of Missouri.
Summerville, A. (2019). Is comparison really the thief of joy? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/multiple-choice/201903/is-compar...